Food chat: What’s the best way to store spices?

Six basic spice blends. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.

Each Wednesday at noon, Aaron Hutcherson and Becky Krystal answer questions and provide practical cooking advice in a chat with readers. Aaron and Becky write and test recipes for Voraciously, The Washington Post’s team dedicated to helping you cook with confidence. Becky recently anchored the chat while Aaron was away. Here are edited excerpts from that chat.

Q: I’ve read that spices can stay potent longer if stored in the freezer. The advice has been to buy a larger bag (which is less expensive) and keep the bag in the freezer and then use a small spice jar of it in the kitchen, replenishing as needed.Is this good advice? Are there spices that this works or doesn’t work for? And on a similar topic, are there spices that are better to store in a fridge than in a drawer?

A: The problem with the freezer and especially the fridge is that they’re more humid than your cabinet and that’s not great for dried, ground spices. Definitely avoid the fridge, as it’s more humid, but unless you’re vacuum packing the spices or have them really, really airtight, I’d be concerned about the freezer.

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I actually think your best bet is to not overbuy and keep the jarred spices in your pantry in a cool, dark spot and use within 6 to 12 months. Whole spices can hold up better in the freezer, but I don’t think that’s what you’re asking about. I can’t think of anything I’d put in the fridge versus the cabinet.

– Becky Krystal

Q: I want to make better use of my freezer, specifically by preparing ingredients ahead of time. I usually keep cooked rice, beans, pesto and stock but want to expand this collection. I just made a big batch of caramelized onions. Can I also freeze white sauce? And do you have other ideas of ingredients that I can prep and freeze?

A: Off the top of my head, I’m thinking pizza dough, pie dough, tomato sauce and blanched vegetables.

If by white sauce, you mean bechamel, sounds like you can. There is a risk of it breaking as it thaws, so it may take some stirring and gentle reheating or further adjustments to bring it back together.

– B.K.

Q: I have an enameled Lodge Dutch oven with a few black bits on the bottom. Is it safe to use barkeepers friend to clean this, or will I damage it somehow?

A: Bar Keepers Friend is my go-to for getting spots off my enameled Dutch ovens. Go for it. It’s so satisfying once you scrub the gunk away!

– B.K.

Q: I have a question regarding alcohol and cooking. Due to health restrictions, my husband cannot have alcohol and has been warned to avoid any dishes with alcohol in them (it takes about three full hours for alcohol to be fully cooked off – a flash in the pan still leaves behind 40% of the alcohol.)

This hasn’t been too complicated, yes, beloved mussels in white wine are out but coconut curry mussels are a hit! And we’ve made other adjustments. However, we are craving a hearty French stew, like beef bourguignon or coq au vin. We’ve tried sans alcohol or subbing the wine for pomegranate juice, but the results are underwhelming. We have no pretenses that we’ll achieve a carbon copy, but “good enough” remains elusive. Any suggestions or similar wine/spirit-free dishes are very much welcome, or would any of the new zero-ABV substitutes work?

A: You are so right about how long it takes to cook off alcohol. This is a common misconception, and I’ve looked into studies about the timing. It’s a while! Here’s a piece I wrote, which might help. I sort of think it can be hard to do a 1-for-1 swap, and you may need do a little concocting to get the right blend going for each dish.

For the stews, I would consider experimenting with blends of tomato juice, grape juice/pomegranate juice and beef broth. Tomato paste could help, too. And it’s not just about tartness, right? Wine does have some sweetness, so adding some sugar or honey could help bring the right balance of flavors. I haven’t cooked with them, but I suspect a nonalcoholic wine might do the trick with much less fuss!

– B.K.

Q: I make a lot of chicken stock and fish stock with my Instant pot. I am thinking of making vegetable broth. Can I just throw my peeling, broccoli stalks, celery leaves, fennel fronds, etc. in the freezer and make the both when I have enough vegetable? Is there anything I should avoid using?

A: Absolutely! I basically only do mine in the Instant Pot now, about 25 minutes under pressure. Typically 8 to 10 cups water, and I’m pretty generous with the amount of scraps so it’s really flavorful. Maybe more like half a gallon bag, or more, if I have it. Sometimes will add a dollop of tomato paste, too. I tend to just throw in whatever, even brassica trimmings. Anything you like and don’t mind tasting. Just make sure you don’t toss in anything dirty or gritty.

– B.K.

Q: May I ask how to make my cookies be crispier but not too crunchy? Almost every time I bake cookies they taste good, but are often too hard or soft to eat.

A: Without many details, it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on, but here are some thoughts.

– Get yourself good baking sheets. My favorite are the Nordic Ware aluminum pans. They heat evenly and efficiently so you get a proper bake.

– Know your oven. See if it’s at the right temp and adjust accordingly. You may be over- or underbaking cookies based on its variability.

– Pay attention to the cookies as you bake. Start checking them on the lower end of the suggested time range, or even a bit before. This ties in with my previous point. Your oven may mean you need to bake for more or less time. This can vary by recipe, but look for the cookies to be set and dry around the edges but still a bit soft in the center. When the cookies are at that point, pull them out and let them sit on the sheet for just a few minutes. You’ll get a bit of carryover cooking, but the move them to a wire rack, so you can get air underneath them. This can keep them crispy, rather than steaming the bottom on a warm pan.

– If you’re really intrepid, you can start experimenting with recipes. Cookies made with butter, or more butter, will be crispier. So will those made with baking soda instead of baking powder.

– B.K.

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